• People of color are disapproprionately affected with diabetes, high blood pressure, and other conditions that raise the risk for severe COVID-19.
  • COVID-19 data collection, testing and services need to be performed and available in all communities.
  • The American Medical Association has issued a statement saying the physicians and front line workers shouldn't be punished for raising concerns about PPE.

Video Transcript

JOHN WHYTE, MD, MPH: Hello, I'm Dr. John Whyte, Chief Medical Officer at WebMD. And welcome to Coronavirus in Context. My guest today is Dr. Patrice Harris, president of the American Medical Association. We're going to talk about all things coronavirus. Dr. Harris, thanks for joining me.

PATRICE HARRIS, MD: Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity, and good to see you again.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: Nice to see you. Let's start off with what's been going on in the news for the past couple of days, where we're seeing that more people of color are dying from coronavirus. Are you surprised by that?

DR. PATRICE HARRIS: I wouldn't say I'm surprised, because early on, we knew that those who had pre-existing medical conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure and obesity, were unfortunately at increased risk of some of the more severe consequences of COVID-19, And of course, we all know that pre-COVID-19, there were many health inequities, African-Americans were disproportionately affected and diagnosed with hypertension, diabetes, so all the things that make you at risk for severe consequences of COVID-19 were already there in the African American community. So I'm not surprised. But I also, in addition to that, I think there's also a lot of misinformation. And so that has added to this as well. I spent the first two weeks -- really, more on a personal level -- of this pandemic talking to family and friends, and trying to dispel the myth that African Americans could not be affected.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: So what do we do about this, as physicians, as policymakers, the general public -- you've talked about how many of those essential workers that are in grocery stores, public transportation, drivers, are disproportionately people of color, who may be getting exposed.

DR. PATRICE HARRIS: So a couple of things -- certainly, these workers are providing essential services, so then what the rest of us can do -- and this also goes for how the rest of us can protect health care workers -- those on the front line -- is stay home. I mean, really -- whatever we can do, each, individually, to prevent the spread of this disease, we can help those who have to be out there. And those, of course, are those essential workers, and again, a lot of representatives from communities of color, and of course, health care workers. The media and journalism -- journalists can make sure that accurate information is out there. So that we are not -- we can combat -- unfortunately, probably, rumors and myths are still going to be provided, but those of us in the media and in positions of leadership can make sure we get the information that we need. And we need to make sure there's equitable testing and services in all communities.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: Do we have that now?

DR. PATRICE HARRIS: I think we probably don't have that. We didn't have that before, pre-COVID-19, and so we don't have that now. And certainly, we can, in this moment, recognize this -- the other important thing-- I don't want to forget that -- is to make sure that states or the federal government is collecting data around race and ethnicity, or really any other data points that help us really understand that.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: And publishing that data so we can --

DR. PATRICE HARRIS: Publishing it. Yes. Yes.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: You and the AMA, the other leaders, have been very vocal about the shortage of personal protective equipment. Are we making progress there? Tell us what's going on right now.

DR. PATRICE HARRIS: From the very beginning, the AMA has highlighted that issue, and that's because I'm sure, just like you, we've been hearing from physicians and nurses and other health care workers on the front line that they didn't have enough, that they were reusing PPE, and you know as well as I do that pre-COVID-19, reusing some of this PPE would have been grounds for dismissal, for violating an institution's infection control policies.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: Absolutely.

DR. PATRICE HARRIS: But in a crisis, of course, we are all doing -- and those on the front line are doing what they need. So that's why, again, hearing from physicians all over the country, we raised that as an issue. And I had the opportunity to talk to President Trump and the rest of the members of the coronavirus task force, that was an issue that we raised front and center, and that's one of the reasons we asked the president to use all the forces of the federal government, including the Defense Production Act, to make sure that there's federally coordinated effort around these supplies. So we think it's better, but we still have a ways to go. We want to be prepared for a worst case scenario.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: And you've talked about the importance of data, and it's also the importance of stories. And we're hearing on social media, some of those people on the front lines, where their experiences aren't necessarily what we're hearing at press conferences. What has the AMA been doing about some institutions trying to prevent physicians and other health professionals from speaking out?

DR. PATRICE HARRIS: Well, first of all, we've been listening. And of course, from the very beginning, we want to make sure that we are hearing the voices of physicians and really raising those concerns, and developing action based on concerns. And at least a week ago, we put out a statement -- the AMA put out a statement -- that physicians or any other front line workers should not be punished or disciplined for raising the issue around PPE.

Now listen, certainly understand the need for institutions to have a coordinated media policy, but these physicians and other health care workers are just pointing out what the public already knows. And so there should not be any retribution or punishment for anyone speaking out on these issues.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: You've been a big proponent of science -- the AMA is a big proponent of science, and as you've said, data. And having worked at the FDA, I know the importance of objective research. Tell us what your thoughts are when we start hearing about some potential treatments. Are they overhyped? Where are we in terms of some of those treatments that people are talking about?

DR. PATRICE HARRIS: You know, we have to begin and end with the science. And certainly, all of us are eager to have treatments. We're all eager for a vaccine. But of course, and you know this better than most, having worked at the FDA, there's a reason that treatments and medications and other treatment alternatives go through the FDA approval process. We do have to rely on the science. It will take time.

Now let's be clear, we support clinical trials, and of course, there will be patients who are using these medications during a clinical trial. That's the research. And there might be an occasion for what we call compassionate use, that's perhaps use at the end of life, but I think you and I both know that even when physicians are making those decisions, we do so looking at the evidence and the science. So it, again, begins and ends with the evidence and the science.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: Pre-COVID-19, you and I have talked about mental health issues. How do we preserve mental health and reduce anxiety during this time of almost information overload? You have great experience in terms of how do we preserve mental health, not just in ourselves, but in our children.

DR. PATRICE HARRIS: Absolutely. And certainly, I recommend that people call on their typical coping skills. Whatever they may be. We're all individuals, and I also think that we should allow ourselves to experience fear and anxiety. Those are normal human emotions. We don't want to get to panic. And so sometimes, that does mean turning off the television. Sometimes that means taking a break from social media, particularly when -- well, I would say at all times, you should make sure you're getting your information from credible sources. And so we need to do that. But we need to certainly make sure we're getting as much sleep as we can, we might need to breathe and use some relaxation techniques where we can, where it is safe to go outside, with our families, practicing physical distancing, getting a little bit of exercise. But if you can't go outside, put on your favorite song and dance.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: What's your favorite song?

DR. PATRICE HARRIS: Well, my all time favorite song is probably Joy and Pain by Frankie Beverly and Maze. He's one of my all time favorites.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: OK.

DR. PATRICE HARRIS: But the younger folks will know that Beyonce did a cover of that. So either one, I love them both. So I like the song. Just one more point about children. Parents and caregivers have to be careful not to ascribe feelings to children. For example, we shouldn't lead with, I know you are afraid. I know you are any emotion. Let our children, our youth, come to us. And also, we should model as best we can, not saying that parents and caregivers can't be fearful or worry, but we should try to model and know that our children are looking to us as to what they should do and feel.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: What can we be optimistic about? What are you optimistic about?

DR. PATRICE HARRIS: Well, I and others have heard this said that -- someone reminded us that Mr. Rogers said when there are times of trouble, look for the helpers. So I'm optimistic that we know scientists and researchers, public health professionals, all of us physicians, first of all, we're looking for treatments and vaccines and new tests that can be more widely available. So I'm optimistic because I know we can always rely on the science and the data. And I'm certain that we will come through this. We will come through this together. But we will get through this. It will be a new normal afterwards, but we will get through it.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: And we will talk again when we have this new normal.

DR. PATRICE HARRIS: Yes. Absolutely.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: I want to thank you for taking the time to join us today.

DR. PATRICE HARRIS: Thank you for having me.

DR. JOHN WHYTE: And I want to thank you for watching Coronavirus in Context. I'm Dr. John Whyte.